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Understanding Eating Disorders

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Identifying Disordered Eating and How to Help

Eating disorders are complex and complicated conditions, and treatment and support is no less nuanced. Eating disorders come in many forms and are affected by emotional, physical and social health, requiring treatment plans that are sensitive to the personal factors at play.

“It is imperative that anyone struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating habits gets help from someone who specializes in this area,” says Katherine Walker, MS, LCPC, a therapist with Northwestern Medicine. Usually, this involves a combination of behavioral support from a therapist and dietary support from a nutritionist. Nearly all forms of disordered eating are rooted in emotional health and most manifest in disordered eating habits, meaning a therapist specializing in eating disorders can often help address and diminish behaviors before they can cause serious damage. However, when disordered eating involves purging or heavily restricted caloric intake, it can cause significant problems requiring medical help.

During the treatment process, patience is incredibly important. Relapses are normal: Changing behavior and thought patterns can be hard and often times uncomfortable. Every habit takes time, so start with small, manageable goals.

“Eating disorders evolve gradually and in most cases need to be resolved piece by piece,” says Walker. “It will take many small successes to reach your overall goal of healthy eating patterns and beliefs. Remember, it’s a process.”

Support will also be imperative during this time, so whether you’re in recovery yourself or helping a loved one, inclusion and education throughout treatment can foster a valuable source of support for both of you, especially so, when risk of relapse appears.

What to Look For

Disordered eating is often influenced or aggravated by a range of emotional and social factors including low self-esteem and difficultly expressing emotions or feelings of inadequacy, and helplessness. People with difficult personal relationships, a history of physical or sexual abuse or a history of bullying, particularly due to weight or physical appearance, are also susceptible to disordered eating. Intense societal or family expectations related to physical appearance can also increase risk.

People with eating disorders often eat in secret or stop participating in family or group meals. They may cook for others, but won’t eat food themselves or they will take frequent trips to the bathroom following meals. Food rituals as well as anxiety surrounding certain foods and avoiding others are common signs as well. You may also notice a change in hair, skin or fingernail quality. Mood changes and increased isolation as well as a tendency to wear clothes that hide body shape can also serve as warning signs.

What’s at Stake

Eating disorders can be very serious. They have one of the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses. Left untreated, disordered eating can have long-term medical implications such as:

  • Acid reflux
  • Osteoporosis
  • Kidney infections and failure
  • Liver failure
  • Dental issues
  • Infertility
  • Muscle loss and weakness
  • Esophgeal rupture
  • Cardiovascular issues

If you or someone you love is struggling with disordered eating habits, you may benefit from speaking to eating disorder professionals. The first step to treatment can start with something as simple as an emotional health consultation and a full physical, including blood work, with a primary care physician.

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